Story by Cherry Crayton
Banner photo by Greg Taylor
BUIES CREEK -- Wanda Watkins, who has been the head coach of the Campbell University women’s basketball team since 1981, didn’t know she was nearing 500 career wins until someone asked her about it just before the start of this season. She didn’t think much of it. But then she got asked about it again, and then again and again.
By the time the season started on Nov. 9 with an 82-56 win over Erskine -- her 499th career victory -- Watkins had settled on an answer that she’d come to repeat to all who asked her about approaching No. 500: “I hope it comes quickly, so we can get it out of the way and the players aren’t thinking about it.”
Only three games into the 2013-14 season -- Watkins’ 33rd at the helm -- it came. On Saturday night, the Lady Camels defeated Western Carolina 73-60 in Gore Arena to give Watkins her 500th career win. Junior guard/forward Kiera Gaines led Campbell with 22 points and 11 rebounds, and senior guard Roslyn Presley had 21 points, all in the second half.
“This is not a Wanda Watkins moment,” Watkins said. “This is definitely a group moment. This is a Campbell women's basketball moment."
Immediately after the game, as Watkins stood near center court surrounded by her players, her coaching staff and several university administrators, the Athletics Department celebrated the moment by unveiling a banner marking the milestone. “Wanda Watkins stands for what this school is all about,” Campbell President Jerry Wallace said. “We are so proud of her and grateful for her good life and her wonderful coaching ability.”
With the win, Watkins became the 27th active coach in NCAA Division I to reach 500 wins. “She’ll never take credit for any of them,” said Mary Weiss, associate head coach of the Campbell women’s basketball team who played for Watkins from 1983 to 1985 and who has been on her staff for 27 years. “But, of course, she deserves credit.”
For a feature story in its Spring 2014 issue, Campbell Magazine is following the women’s basketball team throughout this season -- already marked by Saturday’s historical win -- to provide a behind-the-scenes look at the program. We’ll explore how Watkins built a program that has had 21 winning seasons and that once played in 10 conference tournament championship games in about a dozen-year span, and how she has rejuvenated it after several middling seasons.
But, for now, we let Watkins share how she ended up as a basketball coach and whom she credits for the 500 (and counting) times she has coached a Lady Camels team to victory. The following as-told-to narrative is edited and drawn from several interviews with Watkins over the past two weeks, including one Saturday night after the game.
In her own words: “You can’t get anywhere by yourself”
Basketball was in my making. My parents played in high school, and they loved the game and saw the value of sports and the discipline people acquire through them. When I was a kid, we had the best basketball goal and the best lights for the outdoor court at our home. Everybody in the neighborhood would come to our house to play. I played against anybody, even grown men.
We also had a building off our house where we kept our lawn mower, a freezer and other stuff. One day, there was a tremendous fire that broke out in the building and destroyed everything. I remember sitting at the window, looking at the destruction, crying. My mother tried to comfort me and asked me what was wrong. I looked her in the eyes and told her I was so upset because my basketball burned up. Even as a youngster, basketball was heavy on my mind. It was my first love.
We had 7th and 8th grade basketball back then. We actually played six-man basketball when I was in the 7th grade, and then the state of North Carolina changed it and we played five-man basketball in the 8th grade. That’s one of the best things the state has done for girls.
I went on to attend South Johnston High School the first year that the school opened. It didn’t even have a gym, and I wasn’t old enough to drive. So my mom drove 15 miles four times a day to take me to practice. My parents supported me, and I couldn’t have done it without them.
We had some success at South Johnston and won a state title. Some colleges were interested in me. NC State was one. This was before Kay Yow was coaching there. Robert “Peanut” Doak was the coach then, and he offered me a full scholarship. All I had to do was pay for my room key. They had a recreation degree, but they didn’t have a physical education degree. Even then I knew I wanted to coach; I thought it would be a great way to give back to something that has been so good to me. I knew I could get that physical education degree at Campbell, though they just offered a partial scholarship. And I liked the atmosphere here. I thought the personalized attention would be good, and I was a small town kind of girl. Coming here is a decision I’ve never regretted.
Playing then in college was an entirely different world than now. The support wasn’t nearly as good. There weren’t pep bands. Maybe we had cheerleaders; I don’t remember. But it was a good opportunity, and I learned a lot about life, like that a lot of things in life are relationship-oriented and you can’t get anywhere by yourself. The long bus rides and the relationships I developed with teammates -- that’s what I remember. It made me want to coach even more.
I asked my mentor and college coach, Betty Jo Clary, if I could be a graduate assistant after I finished my undergraduate degree. She had already hired her graduate assistant that year. I got the GA spot the next year. Then, in 1981, Coach Clary decided to go back to teaching full time. I was very young, but I went to talk to Wendell Carr, the athletics director. I told him that this might sound crazy, but I wondered if he would consider me for the head coaching position. He said, “Absolutely, I’m behind that.” So at a very young age, Campbell took a chance on me. Wow.
I had a lot of discipline problems that first year as a coach. Every kind of discipline problem you can imagine. I was the same age as some of the players and even played alongside some of them, so I guess they thought, “Oh, we’ll give her a little try here.” It was draining. I remember telling my folks, “I don’t think I can do this.” But I’ve never been one to accept defeat. It challenged me and motivated me to dig deeper.
I did a lot of reading and I talked to a lot of people about how to handle discipline. I pulled a lot from Coach Dean Smith at North Carolina. The biggest thing was I added the buddy system. Each player is paired with someone, and you’re accountable for both you and that other person. If your buddy is late to practice, you both pay the price. It teaches kids to take ownership. Once they take ownership, a lot of the discipline issues take care of themselves. The kids begin to think, “If I do this, this will have an impact on somebody else.” That’s what team sports are all about.
I also found that once people know how much you care, they will do anything for you. That goes back to my parents. They were great teachers of the game of life. They instilled in me a good work ethic and taught me the importance of finishing what I started and of being a person of my word and of good character. And they stood by me. Even when I made mistakes, I still knew they loved me and supported me. I always knew I was cared about. I want the same thing for the kids. I’ll never replace their mothers, but they are like daughters to me.
My greatest joy is to work with them and to see them grow. It’s a joyful thing to come to work every day. The hardest thing is seeing them hurting and going through painful situations and knowing there’s nothing you can do to fix it. You just have to be there and let them know, even when they do something you don’t like, that you care about them.
I’ve been coaching for a long time, and I’ve had to change in this profession because kids change and generations are different. But my core values haven’t changed. I still see that my major responsibly is to teach the game of life through basketball, and when the kids leave here, we want them ready for the real world and we want success for them.
Success, to me, is giving everything I have to be the best I can be on a daily basis. At the end of the day, when I look at myself in the mirror and when I lie down at night and say my prayers, if I feel that I gave it my all, that’s success. That’s what I work toward every day.
Yes, if you coach long enough, the wins will come. No. 500 was going to happen eventually, and it is a nice milestone. But any kind of milestone is a group effort. So I think about the kids. Nobody wants to win more than I do, but when you look back on it, the kids are what’s special. The wins will never be more special than them. They are what keep me going.
And I think of all the coaches who’ve been here with me. Associate Head Coach Mary Weiss has been on the staff 27 years and played for two years. She has been here for a lot of those wins. Assistant Coach Janice Washington has been here for a lot of them, too. She has been on this staff going on eight years and played four years. And Assistant Coach Megan Hall has been with me for almost 10 years. They work hard behind the scenes. Today, Mary was up at 7 in the morning and on the road recruiting all day. She rushed in at 6:15 this evening for the game [against Western Carolina]. The other coaches are the same way. They are my heroes. I get a lot of the glory they deserve.
And I think of Campbell. This university hired me when I was very young. I will always be grateful they took a chance on me. It has been such a dream job. I don’t know what I would have done with my life all these years if I hadn’t coached. I feel very driven that I’m doing what God put me here to do. – As told to Cherry Crayton, digital content coordinator